“Anyone that says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention,” Mrs. Clinton said during the American Bar Association’s annual gathering in San Francisco.
Any high-profile public appearance by the former secretary of State stokes buzz that she's likely to launch a presidential bid for 2016. But what's notable about Monday night's address is that her comments were plainly political in nature – and clearly targeted to the Democratic Party base.
When Clinton ran for the White House in 2008 as the presumed front-runner, she found herself in a sustained primary battle with then-Sen. Barack Obama, and it was Senator Obama, despite his newness to the national scene, who made a love connection with the liberal Democrats who tend to vote in primary contests.
Signaling that she’s learning from past miscalculations, Clinton is engaging early in that courtship. Her remarks on the Voting Rights Act indicate that she is tending to the party’s most loyal activists – in this case, to the minorities who feel disenfranchised by laws they see as designed to keep them away from the polls.
She is building a campaign without actively campaigning, recasting herself as a champion of those issues about which devoted Democratic partisans care most. And as NBC’s Mark Murray said this morning on MSNBC, there is no matter that “fires up” party voters more than issue of voting rights.
During the ABA event, Clinton criticized the US Supreme Court for, earlier this year, striking down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which designates which states must have federal approval of any changes in election laws.
"Unless the hole opened up by the Supreme Court is fixed ... citizens will be disenfranchised, victimized by the law, instead of served by it," Clinton said, and "that historical progress for a more perfect union will go backwards, instead of forward."
Clinton also targeted Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina for being particularly active in suppressing the vote. In North Carolina on Monday, the state’s Republican governor signed a law requiring government-issued photo identification at the polls. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have promised to mount a legal challenge.
As a result, the former first lady, who could face a 2016 primary field of contenders that includes Vice President Joe Biden, among others, suggested that Congress should move on proposals that would make it easier for citizens to get registered. She made a plea for "fair and uniform" identification standards, same-day registration, and improved security on electronic voting machines.
“We do – let’s admit it – have a long history of shutting people out: African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities,” Clinton said, according to the Washington Post. “And throughout our history, we have found too many ways to divide and exclude people from their ownership of the law and protection from the law.”
Clinton, who left her post at the State Department in February, told her audience that “phantom” claims of widespread voter fraud prompted “a sweeping effort to construct new obstacles to voting” during the 2012 White House campaign. She said more than 80 bills have been introduced in 31 states limiting access to the polls; some require government-issued identification, for example.
Clinton did not mention the 2016 contest, but she doesn’t have to. Reporters do that for her.
The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak called the ABA speech a continuation of Clinton’s “long, slow flirtation with the 2016 presidential campaign.”
There’s much more to come from Clinton, who upon leaving her post as head of the State Department initially suggested that she wanted some good rest and relaxation. Her idea of a hiatus from official public life seems to include regular headline-making engagements, however.
In Philadelphia next month, Clinton will tackle “the issue of transparency” in US national security policies. And she suggested Monday night that she will make an appearance later this year focused on “American’s global leadership and our moral standing around the world.”
“Obviously her upcoming speeches, and the topics that she announced, show a consistent seriousness of purpose,” says Tracy Sefl, a Washington-based Democratic consultant.
“Not that there's anything wrong with a steak fry or a state fair, after all, there's a role for those under the 2016 circus tent," she adds. "But for the tea leaf readers, it's the carefully chosen arc of issues she'll be addressing that says the most about what lies ahead.”
Clinton launched her 2000 US Senate race and 2008 presidential run with listening tours, efforts to highlight her accessibility and show she had a human touch. This year, her planned speaking series signals more of a "listen up!" tour.